When did you last read the book of Joel? It’s well worth reading! It may be short, but it contains a message with a breadth that covers both Israel and the world as a whole.
One of the outstanding features of the book of Joel is its many repetitions. It is interesting to examine each of these repetitions in its own right, but when they are considered together, we observe a phenomenon that has great importance in understanding the structure and the message of the book. There are two cycles of repetition, one within the other, which create an outer mirror image between chapters 1-2 and 4 and, within that, an inner mirror image in chapters 1-2 [readers of the English translations of the Bible should be aware of the fact that in the Masoretic Hebrew text the text is divided into four chapter with chapter 3 in Hebrew being equivalent to chapter 2:28-32].
The wider cycle of repetitions: the outer mirror image
|Joel 1||Joel 3|
|5 Awake, drunkards, and weep; and wail, all you wine drinkers, on account of the sweet wine that is cut off from your mouth. 6 For a nation has invaded [has come up] my land, mighty and without number; its teeth are the teeth of a lion, and it has the fangs of a lioness. 7 It has made my vine a waste, and my fig tree splinters. It has stripped them bare and cast them away; their branches have become white.||12 Let the nations be aroused and come up to the valley of Jehoshaphat, for there I will sit to judge all the surrounding nations….|
18 And it will come about in that day that the mountains will drip with sweet wine, and the hills will flow with milk, and all the brooks of Judah will flow with water; and a spring will go out from the house of the LORD, to water the valley of Shittim.
The opening of the book of Joel describes a plague of locusts which devour everything and bring devastation and disaster to the land. As a result, sweet wine will be cut off from the mouths of the drinkers. In the close of the book sweet wine appears a second time, but now instead of being cut off from its drinkers it is so abundant that the mountains drip with it in an extravagant display of the LORD’s blessing. This repetition of ‘sweet wine’ represents a mirror image in which the negative situation described in the beginning of the book is transformed and now this wine signifies the blessing that the LORD now pours out.
There is an additional repetition in the opening and ending of the book – a nation coming up // nations coming up. In many translations the repetition of the verb ‘to go up’ is not apparent, so it’s worth looking at a literal translation which reflects the original Hebrew even though it might not be such a smooth read. In the opening of the book the nation coming up to the Lord’s (and the prophet’s) land comes to destroy (Joel 1:6). At the end of the book the nations will come up to the land to be judged for their deeds (Joel 3:12). Again, the repetition represents a transformation on two levels: a negative situation for Israel is changed into a positive one, and the role of the nation or nations has been changed from being an instrument of disaster and destruction to being the object of judgement. This change in the fortunes of Israel on the one hand and the nations on the other is reflected in an additional repetition.
|Joel 2||Joel 3|
|15 Blow a trumpet in Zion, consecrate a fast, proclaim a solemn assembly, 16 gather the people, sanctify [consecrate] the congregation, Assemble the elders, gather the children and the nursing infants. Let the bridegroom come out of his room and the bride out of her bridal chamber. 17 Let the priests, the LORD’s ministers, weep between the porch and the altar, and let them say, “Spare Thy people, O LORD, and do not make Thine inheritance a reproach, a byword among the nations. Why should they among the peoples say, ‘Where is their God?'” 18 Then the LORD will be zealous for His land, and will have pity on His people.||9 Proclaim this among the nations: Prepare [consecrate] a war; rouse the mighty men! Let all the soldiers draw near, let them come up! 10 Beat your plowshares into swords, and your pruning hooks into spears; let the weak say, “I am a mighty man.” 11 Hasten and come, all you surrounding nations, and gather yourselves [assemble] there. Bring down, O LORD, Thy mighty ones. 12 Let the nations be aroused and come up to the valley of Jehoshaphat, for there I will sit to judge all the surrounding nations.|
Again, there is a repetition in these two sections which carries an important message. However, the repetition is not as clear in translation as it is in the original Hebrew, in which three verbs from Joel 2:15-16 are repeated in chapter 3 verses 9-11. Of these verbs ‘proclaim’ is often repeated in English translations, but the words translated as ‘consecrate’ in Joel 2:15 and ‘assemble’ in Joel 2:16 are often not given the same translation in chapter 3. This is understandable but, unfortunately, misses an important connection. For instance in chapter 2 there is a repetition that is missed in many translations when the word which is translated as ‘sanctify’ in verse 16 in the New American Standard Version is the same in Hebrew as the word translated as ‘consecrate’ in verse 15. The upshot of this is that the poetic power of repetition in different contexts is lost. The line between this understandable difference in translation and the power of the repetition that it hides is well illustrated when the same verb is translated as ‘consecrate’ in 2:15, where the call is to ‘consecrate’ a fast, and as ‘prepare’ in 3:9, where the call is to ‘consecrate’ a war. This latter translation is perfectly logical since we would not expect the verb ‘consecrate’ to describe a war. But the unexpected is exactly what points to the fact that this deliberate repetition in 2:15 and 3:9 is intended to surprise and cause the reader to see a link. The link engendered by the repetition of these verbs connects and contrasts two situations. In chapter 2 the call is to consecrate a fast and the ones called to fast are all the people of Israel from every age group and no matter what their status. In comparison, in chapter 3 the call is to consecrate a war and the ones called to assemble for this purpose are the nations. This repetition is similar in its effect and meaning, therefore, to the previous repetitions we mentioned:
- the first part of the book describes a tragedy which is brought upon Israel by an invader described as a hoard of locusts and called a ‘nation’, and a call is given to Israel to do what amounts to the actions of repentance.
- the second part of the book describes both the judgement that comes on the nations assembled in the area of Jerusalem (the valley of Jehoshaphat) and the blessing that comes on Israel, in part through this judgement of its enemies.
Additional repetitions add to this mirror image:
|Joel 2||Joel 3|
|10 Before them the earth quakes, The heavens tremble, The sun and the moon grow dark, And the stars lose their brightness 11 And the LORD utters His voice before His army; Surely His camp is very great, for strong is he who carries out His word. The day of the LORD is indeed great and very awesome, and who can endure it? 12 “Yet even now,” declares the LORD, “Return to Me with all your heart, and with fasting, weeping, and mourning 13 And rend your heart and not your garments.” Now return to the LORD your God, For He is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in lovingkindness, and relenting of evil. 14 Who knows whether He will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind Him, even a grain offering and a libation For the LORD your God?||14 Multitudes, multitudes in the valley of decision! For the day of the LORD is near in the valley of decision. 15 The sun and moon grow dark, And the stars lose their brightness. 16 And the LORD roars from Zion and utters His voice from Jerusalem, And the heavens and the earth tremble. But the LORD is a refuge for His people and a stronghold to the sons of Israel. 17 Then you will know that I am the LORD your God, Dwelling in Zion My holy mountain. So Jerusalem will be holy, and strangers will pass through it no more.|
At the end of a description of the invasion of a terrible army (locusts?) we are told that “the sun and the moon grow dark, and the stars lose their brightness.” In addition, and this is both surprising and awe-inspiring, we are told that the one who leads this fearful force with fearsome war cries is, in fact, the LORD Himself (“And the LORD utters His voice before His army”). The invading army belongs to the LORD and does His will (“Surely His camp is very great, for strong is he who carries out His word.”). So, the LORD Himself is the one who brings a conquering army against His land and His people, and even the celestial bodies (sun, moon, and stars) exhibit the enormity of the disaster in the darkening of their light. And then, in Joel 3, the celestial bodies are again said to turn dark in a repetition of the very same words that appeared in 2:10 – “The sun and moon grow dark, And the stars lose their brightness”. This time, however, this is not as a sign of the dreadful blow that falls on the land and the people of Israel but as a sign of the coming judgement of the nations. What is more, we hear again the roar of the LORD’s voice, but this time not uttered as he leads his host against the land and people of Israel but as He protects them (“And the LORD roars from Zion and utters His voice from Jerusalem, and the heavens and the earth tremble. But the LORD is a refuge for His people and a stronghold to the sons of Israel.”). The effect and message of this mirror image is completely in line with that of the other repetitions that have already been mentioned.
That is not all! A subject that connects all the sections of the book of Joel is the declaration of the ‘day of the LORD’. Also in this case we can see a mirror image between the first and the second part of the book.
|The first section of Joel||The second section of Joel|
14 Consecrate a fast, Proclaim a solemn assembly; Gather the elders and all the inhabitants of the land to the house of the LORD your God, and cry out to the LORD. 15 Alas for the day! For the day of the LORD is near, and it will come as destruction from the Almighty.
|Joel 2:28, 31-32 [Hebrew – 3:1, 4-5]|
28 “And it will come about after this That I will pour out My Spirit on all mankind; …
31 “The sun will be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes. 32 “And it will come about that whoever calls on the name of the LORD Will be delivered; for on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there will be those who escape, as the LORD has said, even among the survivors whom the LORD calls.
|Joel 2:1-3, 11|
Blow a trumpet in Zion, and sound an alarm on My holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the LORD is coming; Surely it is near, 2 a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness. As the dawn is spread over the mountains, so there is a great and mighty people; there has never been anything like it, nor will there be again after it to the years of many generations. 3 A fire consumes before them, and behind them a flame burns. The land is like the garden of Eden before them, but a desolate wilderness behind them, and nothing at all escapes them.
|Joel 3:13-16 [Hebrew – 4:13-16]|
13 Put in the sickle, for the harvest is ripe. Come, tread, for the wine press is full; the vats overflow, for their wickedness is great. 14 Multitudes, multitudes in the valley of decision! For the day of the LORD is near in the valley of decision. 15 The sun and moon grow dark, and the stars lose their brightness. 16 And the LORD roars from Zion and utters His voice from Jerusalem, and the heavens and the earth tremble. But the LORD is a refuge for His people and a stronghold to the sons of Israel.
In every one of these occurrences the day of the LORD signifies God’s direct intervention in the regular affairs of the world. But it stands out that in the first two mentions of the day of the LORD it is an event that is connected specifically to Israel while in the last two occurrences it is an event affecting the whole world, and in the last chapter it involves God’s judgement on the nations. So, again, the second section of the book is a mirror image of the first section. The focus in the first section is the calamity that the LORD Himself brings on His people and His land, while in the second section the focus is on His intervention in history on a global level in a way that brings justice through judgement on the nations and salvation to Israel.
The inner cycle of repetitions: the inner mirror image
Within chapters 1-2:27 there is an additional mirror image which appears in several repetitions.
|Joel 1||Joel 2|
|4 What the gnawing locust has left, the swarming locust has eaten; and what the swarming locust has left, the creeping locust has eaten; and what the creeping locust has left, the stripping locust has eaten. 5 Awake, drunkards, and weep; and wail, all you wine drinkers, on account of the sweet wine that is cut off from your mouth. 6 For a nation has invaded my land, mighty and without number; its teeth are the teeth of a lion, and it has the fangs of a lioness. 7 It has made my vine a waste, and my fig tree splinters. It has stripped them bare and cast them away; their branches have become white.||25 “Then I will make up to you for the years that the swarming locust has eaten, the creeping locust, the stripping locust, and the gnawing locust, my great army which I sent among you. 26 “And you shall have plenty to eat and be satisfied, and praise the name of the LORD your God, who has dealt wondrously with you; Then My people will never be put to shame. 27 “Thus you will know that I am in the midst of Israel, and that I am the LORD your God And there is no other; and My people will never be put to shame.|
These repetitions represent two contrasts or reversals. The first is that in chapter 1 the different kinds of locusts (or locusts at different stages of growth) eat the land and bring destruction. As opposed to this at the end of the first section of the book in chapter 2:25-27 (which in Hebrew is the end of chapter 2) the LORD “makes up” (the Hebrew can be translated “pays for”) the years the locusts have eaten.
The second ‘reversal’ is that in chapter 1 the eater was the locust bringing destruction on the land of Israel, whereas in chapter 2 verses 25-27 it is the children of Israel who eat from the goodness of the land and give thanks to the name of the LORD. In this mirror image what is negative concerning the land and people of Israel in chapter 1 is inversed to a positive in chapter 2:25-27.
Further repetitions also reflect this change.
|Joel 1||Joel 2|
|11 Be ashamed, O farmers, Wail, O vinedressers, for the wheat and the barley; because the harvest of the field is destroyed. 12 The vine dries up, and the fig tree fails; the pomegranate, the palm also, and the apple tree, all the trees of the field dry up. Indeed, rejoicing dries up from the sons of men…. 17 The seeds shrivel under their clods; the storehouses are desolate, the barns are torn down, for the grain is dried up.||26 “And you shall have plenty to eat and be satisfied, and praise the name of the LORD your God, who has dealt wondrously with you; then My people will never be put to shame. 27 “Thus you will know that I am in the midst of Israel, and that I am the LORD your God and there is no other; and My people will never be put to shame.|
In this case the inversion is expressed by a word play on two Hebrew words (בוש meaning ‘be ashamed’ or ‘put to shame’ and יבש meaning ‘dry up’) which include two of the same letters in their basic states (root) and which are very similar to one another in sound and meaning. Chapter 1 speaks negatively about the terrible situation in which the land ‘dries up’ and those working it are ‘ashamed’. As opposed to this, Joel 2:26-27 emphasizes an inverse situation by repeating twice the statement ‘My people will never be put to shame’. Another repetition is connected to this one and strengthens the message.
|Joel 1||Joel 2|
|15 Alas for the day! For the day of the LORD is near, and it will come as destruction from the Almighty. 16 Has not food been cut off before our eyes, gladness and joy from the house of our God?… 19 To Thee, O LORD, I cry; for fire has devoured the pastures of the wilderness, and the flame has burned up all the trees of the field. 20 Even the beasts of the field pant for Thee; for the water brooks are dried up, and fire has devoured the pastures of the wilderness.||21 Do not fear, O land, rejoice and be glad, for the LORD has done great things. 22 Do not fear, beasts of the field, for the pastures of the wilderness have turned green, for the tree has borne its fruit, the fig tree and the vine have yielded in full. 23 So rejoice, O sons of Zion, and be glad in the LORD your God; for He has given you the early rain for your vindication. And He has poured down for you the rain, the early and latter rain as before.|
The translation loses the power of the repetition in the words translated ‘gladness and joy’ in 1:16 and ‘rejoice and be glad’ in 2:21, 23 which in Hebrew are the same words – appearing in chapter 1 as nouns and in chapter 2 as verbs. When these are recognized, we can see that the repetitions in chapter 2 verses 21-23 indicate the transformation of the pastures of the wilderness and the reversal of all gladness and joy being cut off, to the call for the land and the sons of Zion to be glad and joyful. What is more, we see that these repetitions appear exactly at the point which gives the reason for the change from negative to positive, from the negation of all gladness and joy to the call to be glad and rejoice. The verses in chapter 2 which present this inversion (21-23) open by addressing the land, which is called on not to fear, continue with a similar call to the beasts of the field, and arrive at their climax in the call to the sons of Zion. The repetition of the imperative to be glad and rejoice (in verses 21 and 23) marks the dramatic change in the situation of the land, the animals and the people (the sons of Zion).
An additional repetition in chapter 2 of an element that appears in chapter 1 comes before this transformation, at the point where the people are called to fast and weep before the LORD over the situation in the hope that He will “turn and relent”.
|Joel 1||Joel 2|
|8 Wail like a virgin girded with sackcloth for the bridegroom of her youth. 9 The grain offering and the libation are cut off from the house of the LORD. The priests mourn, The ministers of the LORD….|
13 Gird yourselves with sackcloth, And lament, O priests; Wail, O ministers of the altar! Come, spend the night in sackcloth, O ministers of my God, For the grain offering and the libation Are withheld from the house of your God.
|12 “Yet even now,” declares the LORD, “Return to Me with all your heart, and with fasting, weeping, and mourning; 13 And rend your heart and not your garments.” Now return to the LORD your God, For He is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in lovingkindness, and relenting of evil. 14 Who knows whether He will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind Him, even a grain offering and a libation For the LORD your God?|
In chapter 1 the disaster that comes on the land leads to the cutting off of the grain offering and the libation from the house of God – the cessation of the worship of the LORD from the place He chose. The LORD’s call to the people in chapter 2 to return to Him (2:12) is presented as the grounds for the possibility that the LORD will change the situation and enable people to return to serve Him with grain offering and libation.
A Mirror Image with a message and the axis of the inversion
From all that we have seen it is clear that the repetitions in the book of Joel serve an important role in the structure of the book and the message that the book communicates. The outer mirror image represents an inversion in the fortunes and roles of Israel and the nations, while the inner mirror image presents the inversion that happens within Israel. It is both interesting and of great significance that both cycles of reflection (the outer and the inner) lead us to the identification of the axis of inversion for them both at the same point. For the outer mirror image, the two sides of the refection are 1:1 – 2:27 (Hebrew chapters 1-2) on the one side and 2:28 – 3:21 (Hebrew chapters 3-4) on the other side, with 2:18-27 marking the change. The inner mirror image helps us to identify the axis of inversion more accurately. The repetitions in 2:25-27 indicate that the turning point must be before these verses. The recurrent call to be glad and rejoice in 2:21-23 reverses the previous negation of gladness and joy, and the reason for this reversal is introduced by the word ‘for’ (כי). In verse 21 the reason given is that the LORD has done great things with no additional explanation. In verse 22 the reason for the call to rejoice is the dramatic change in the fertility of the land, but again, no specific explanation is given for this change. It is only in verse 23, in the call to the sons of Zion to rejoice, that we find the explanation and true reason for all the changes and for the inversion of mourning to rejoicing in the LORD: “for He has given you the rain/the teacher of righteousness (“haMôreh litz’däqäh” – הַמּוֹרֶ֖ה לִצְדָקָ֑ה) and brings down for you the former rain and the latter rain in the first [month].” Here is the reason for the complete change in the situation, the axis of inversion for both mirror images.
On the face of it the call to rejoice in the LORD our God is because He has given “rain”. But there are elements in this sentence which lead us to understand that the prophet is talking about something more than rain.
- If you look at several translations, you will notice that some say that the LORD has given the “rain” and others that He has given the “teacher”. The reason for this difference is that in Hebrew the word used is Môreh(מּוֹרֶ֖ה). This is a changed form of the usual word for “former rain”, the first rain of the autumn, which is yôreh (יוֹרֶה – 11:14; Jer. 5:24). In Joel 2:23 the first letter of the word has been changed from ‘yod’ to ‘mem’. The normal use of the word beginning with ‘mem’ is ‘teacher’ but the context obviously creates an expectation for the meaning “former rain” (another possible exception is found in Ps. 84:6 – Hebrew verse 7 – though ancient translations also understand the word môreh in this verse as meaning a lawgiver and thus being connected with a teacher).
- There is a significant addition to the word haMôreh– in Hebrew litz’däqäh (לִצְדָקָ֑ה) which has been variously translated but the basic meaning of which is ‘for/to/of righteousness’. If the meaning of haMôreh is ‘former rain’, it is hard to understand the meaning of the addition litz’däqäh. Some commentators and translations understand this as meaning rain that comes as a gift, in grace, and not as something deserved because the people were worthy – but this is very difficult.
- The phrase in Hebrew “bärishôn” (בָּֽרִאשֽׁוֹן) also plays an important part. In every other place that this phrase appears in the Tanach (OT) it always signifies the first month of the year, the month of Nisan, or Aviv (Gen. 8:13; Num. 9:5; Ezk. 29:17; 30:20; 45:18; 45:21). In other words, the month of Passover.
The use of the word “haMôreh” (instead of “haYôreh”) introduces to the text an element of ambiguity. On the one hand, our thoughts turn automatically to “haYôreh” meaning ‘first rain’ since this is in line with the agricultural motif of the passage. On the other hand, the word haMôreh points to a person, indeed, a person with a particular role connected with teaching or imparting something, and the addition of the phrase litz’däqäh, of/for righteousness, confirms and strengthens this direction. Add to this the difficulty of explaining why the ‘first rain’ which comes in the autumn should come in spring, in the month of Nisan (‘in the first’ – bärishôn) which is the season of the ‘latter rains’ (mal’qôsh). This special choice and combination of words and concepts clearly leads the reader to understand that there is something more than simply the agricultural motif here. A double meaning has been engendered. At first glance, it seems that the agricultural motif that has been central to the text simply continues. But in considering the words the reader must stop and take stock and this leads to the realization that the language points to a character who the prophet calls ‘the teacher of righteousness’ and to the fact that the month of Nisan plays an important role in the inversion of the previous situation to one in which the sons of Zion can be called to be glad and rejoice in the LORD. The structure of the mirror images in the book of Joel focuses the reader’s attention on this character and on the event that will occur in the month of Nisan as the focal point and axis of inversion.
Biblical interpreters through the ages have been divided over this textual ambiguity. Two main directions are presented in the ancient translations: the Septuagint (the Greek translation carried out between the 3rd century B.C. and the 1st century A.D.) and the Aramaic Targum (called Targum Yonatan and carried out in the land of Israel but edited in the diaspora, in Babylon, and finished by the 7th century A.D.). In the Septuagint the word “haMôreh” is translated with the meaning of ‘food’. This is a rather strange translation, but it conveys the idea of something material ending the extremities of drought and providing the possibility of eating well. The expression “bärishôn” (“in the first”) is translated with the meaning of ‘as before’, ‘as at first’. In other words, the LORD will give rain, the result of which will be food in abundance, as in the period before the drought. In the Aramaic translation, however, “haMôreh” is translated according to its regular meaning as one who teaches, and “bärishôn” is translated in accord with the meaning it holds in every other place in the Tanach, as “the month of Nisan”.
After these two translations some interpreters have tried to explain the text in the direction of the Septuagint translation, understanding the term “haMôreh” to be referring to material rain. But those attempts are very forced. Especially in the light of the additional phrase “litz’däqäh” (of/for righteousness) and the fact this happens in the spring and not in autumn at the time of the ‘first rain’ (assuming that “bärishôn” means the month of Nisan). Other interpreters followed the example of the Aramaic translation, which translates “haMôreh” in its usual meaning as expressing one who teaches or imparts something. Among those who took this direction some understood the text as to be speaking of the prophets (as, for example, Rashi) or of one particular prophet such as Moses, spoken about in Dt. 18:18-19 (this was, for example, the understanding of Ibn Ezra). Others thought that the text was talking about the Messiah. This, for example, was the interpretation of Abarbanel who wrote concerning “haMôreh litz’däqäh” (the Teacher of righteousness): “and this is the king Messiah who will teach the way in which to go and what to do…” [my translation]. The connection of this figure to the month of Nisan (“bärishôn” – in the first [month]) is also of great significance according to this interpretation because of the connection of Moses to the month of Nisan, the time of Passover and the exodus from Egypt. The suggestion is, therefore, that the future redemption is paralleled to the exodus and that central to it will be “the Teacher of righteousness” who is paralleled to Moses.
In the light of the last interpretive direction, it is important to take note of the way that the book of Joel is referred to in Acts 2:14-36 in the New Testament, which reflects a very early understanding of the book which is connected to the Messiah. In reference to the pouring out of the Spirit on the disciples of Yeshua (Jesus) after His death, resurrection and ascension to heaven, Simon Peter quoted the prophecy from Joel 2:28-32 – in Hebrew this is chapter 3 (Acts 2:16-21). In the overall structure of the book of Joel this event, the pouring out of the Spirit, comes immediately after the prophecy concerning “haMôreh litz’däqäh” (the Teacher of righteousness) in Joel 2:23. It is clear, therefore, that when Simon Peter connected the pouring out of the Spirit at the feast of Weeks (Pentecost), which follows the feast of Passover when Yeshua died and rose from the dead, to the prophecy in Joel 2:28-32 he is assuming that the prophecy in Joel 2:23 has already happened. We can understand from this that Simon Peter understood that Yeshua Himself fulfilled the prophecy of “the Teacher of righteousness” and that the events of Passover that year fulfilled the expression “bärishôn” (in the first [month]) in the book of Joel that refer to the month of Nisan. We know that Yeshua spoke to His disciples of the way that Scripture spoke of Him (see, for example, Matt. 21:42; 22:43-44; Lk. 24:27). It is, therefore, highly likely that the source of this understanding comes from Yeshua Himself and is now repeated by Simon Peter.
 Thus: the Septuagint, the Aramaic Targum, the Latin Vulgate.